The job of the gallbladder is to store the bile produced by the liver and to release it on an as-needed basis for digestive purposes. However, it isn't easy to keep this complex mixture of chemicals in liquid form. The various elements of bile have a natural tendency to form sludge, lumps, and hard deposits called gallstones. The body uses several biochemical methods to prevent such condensation from occurring, but this natural chemistry does not always succeed. More than 20% of women and 8% of men develop gallstones at some time in their lives.
You could have gallstones in your body for many years without experiencing any problems. However, sooner or later, a gallstone will likely plug the duct that leads out of the gallbladder, causing pain.
Generally, gallbladder pain starts in the form of occasional minor attacks that subside rapidly, separated by weeks without discomfort. During this phase, the stones block the duct temporarily and then move out of the way. Eventually, continuous obstruction may develop, causing the gallbladder to become inflamed and perhaps infected. This condition is called cholecystitis. Cholecystitis is a potentially life threatening situation because an inflamed, blocked gallbladder can rupture. Another risk is that a stone may escape the gallbladder's own duct and move along to the duct that carries away secretions from both the liver and the gallbladder (the common bile duct). When this happens, the liver cannot unload the bile it produces, putting it at risk of permanent injury and creating a true surgical emergency.
The most reliable symptom of cholecystitis is intense pain beneath the right lower rib cage, often occurring from midnight to 3 AM. Typically, pain radiates to the right shoulder and is accompanied by a loss of appetite and sometimes nausea. Removal of the gallbladder immediately solves the problem. Gallbladder surgery can usually be carried out laparoscopically, resulting in a quick and easy procedure that requires little recovery time needed.
Living without a gallbladder does not seem to bring any long-term consequences. However, many people are opposed on general principle to removing an organ that nature has placed there. Medications that dissolve gallstones may be another option.
Proposed Natural Treatments
The only time it is appropriate to use alternative treatments for gallstones is during the interval before cholecystitis develops. Once the gallbladder has become completely blocked, surgical treatment is urgent.
However, during the initial period in which pain is only occasional or intermittent, the risks incurred by postponing surgery are slight. If your doctor feels that a trial of stone-dissolving medications might be appropriate, some of the agents described here could present alternate possibilities. Unfortunately, none are well established as effective. Medical supervision is definitely essential.
It may be the caffeine in coffee that helps, as other sources of caffeine were also associated with reduced risk of gallstones, while decaffeinated coffee didn't seem to help. Caffeine is known to increase the flow of bile, so this connection makes sense. However, it is also possible that people who drink more coffee have other unknown characteristics that make them more likely to have gallstones, and that caffeine itself is an innocent bystander. Observational studies, in other words, do not show cause and effect.
- Reviewer: EBSCO CAM Review Board
- Review Date: 07/2012 -
- Update Date: 07/25/2012 -